“She wanted to die and I wanted to live, therefore we were enemies who loved each other.”
It’s a tale of two sisters in “All My Puny Sorrows,” based on the award-winning novel by Miriam Toews and adapted for the screen by writer / director Michael McGowan. This highly personal family drama about successful (and severely depressed) concert pianist Elfrieda (Sarah Gadon) and her writer sister Yoli (Alison Pill) is based on the author’s own life, lending an intimate yet universal insight to struggles with grief, love, and mental illness.
The plot centers around the two sisters from the Von Riesen family, both lapsed Mennonites, and the demons that continue to haunt them emotionally. Their dad (Donal Logue) killed himself when the girls were young, leaving their stoic mother (Mare Winningham) and widowed aunt (Mimi Kuzyk) to care for them. Neither of the women have ever truly confronted the tragedy and trauma that has shaped their lives, but things come to a head when Elfrieda is hospitalized with yet another suicide attempt. Yoli rushes to her side, only to learn that her sister really, truly does not feel like she can go on living any longer. Elfrieda is obsessed with ending her life, while Yoli can’t stop wrestling with the “why?,” causing a great inner turmoil because she is willing to do anything to keep her sister alive.
This is definitely a writer’s movie, with an excellent screenplay that’s insightful and intelligent. There’s warm humor that feels bittersweet, especially when the two sisters openly discuss how their relationship has matured as they have, too. The characters (all strong and confident female leads) debate weighty topics while managing to interject their conversations with literary references and the happy memories that peppered their childhood years. It’s soon clear that letting go of grief can sometimes be more painful than the grief itself.
The film is perfectly cast from top to bottom, and McGowan scores phenomenal performances from all his actors. Pill is at her career best here, embracing and becoming Yoli so thoroughly and completely that the actor and her character seem one and the same. That’s not something that happens often but when it does, it’s absolute magic.
“All My Puny Sorrows” is an emotionally exhausting film to watch, but it’s so delicately directed, refined, and subtle in its storytelling. It’s touching and heartbreaking in the best way possible.
This film was screened for review at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
By: Louisa Moore